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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Carpenters: Made In America

CARPENTERS: MADE IN AMERICA (1981)

1) Those Good Old Dreams; 2) Strength Of A Woman; 3) (Want You) Back In My Life Again; 4) When You've Got What It Takes; 5) Somebody's Been Lyin'; 6) I Believe You; 7) Touch Me When We're Dancing; 8) When It's Gone (It's Just Gone); 9) Beechwood 4-5789; 10) Because We Are In Love.

There is not much that can be said, at least meaningfully, about the last Carpenters album re­leased in Karen's lifetime. Apparently, already after her death Richard went on the Larry King show and declared that this was both his and her favorite record of everything they'd done — a statement that I can only ascribe to a particular sentimental value that he'd placed on it, as well as the recording sessions still being fresh in his memory. Because even if Christmas Portrait could be written off as a one-time special project, Made In England clearly showed that the slightly experimental and unpredictable direction they took on Passage had been abandoned for good, and now, at the start of a new musical decade which they were not to survive, they'd slipped back to the level of Horizon and A Kind Of Hush — something that was even less forgivable for the early Eighties than it was for the mid-Seventies.

All the hallmarks are right here. There is very little original songwriting (only the opening and the closing songs are credited to Richard and Bettis). There's one Roger Nichols cover and one Burt Bacharach cover, and they are both boring. There is one obligatory lively cover of a Motown oldie — this time it is ʽBeachwood 4-5789ʼ from The Marvelettes backlog — and it is as fun and as forgettable as ever. And then there's a lot of help from outside professional songwriters and some covers of recent hits, mainly from the easy listening circuit, with nothing even remotely approaching the «edge» of ʽB'wana She No Homeʼ or ʽCalling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craftʼ. Made in America, for sure, but not necessarily something of which the American nation should be particularly proud.

Surprisingly, I have several times encountered the word «comeback» in conjunction with this re­cord — which, honestly, I can only understand in the most straightforward sense, namely, that this was the first album of «original» material they managed to get out in four years. But as in «artistic comeback»? Hardly. Yes, they managed to score one significant hit with ʽTouch Me When We're Dancingʼ, a cover of an earlier (and lesser) 1979 hit by the short-lived Muscle Shoals session band Bama, but it is just a sappy para-disco ballad, rendered in a style that was never well associable with Karen Carpenter and, for that matter, not improving one bit on the original. And yes, the opening lyrical country-pop flow of ʽThose Good Old Dreamsʼ is seductive enough, but I could not say the same for the closing ʽBecause We Are In Loveʼ, a corny wedding song consisting of nothing but well-harmonized rose petals. Nor, in fact, could I say it about any other song on this album.

Putting it in context — the fairly wretched life of Richard, suffering from his addictions, and Karen, suffering from her anorexia — only makes things worse, because it seems as if they spe­cially designed Made In America so that it could take them as far away from their problems as possible. Basically, this is the happiest-sounding Carpenters album ever (the single exception being Randy Handley's slightly deeper, but not very memorable ballad ʽWhen It's Goneʼ), full of shallow statements of romance and devotion, nothing even remotely reminding you of the psycho­logical depths these guys were once capable of reaching with songs like ʽSuperstarʼ or, heck, even ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ. And perhaps it is an understandable gesture, to create a joyful panorama of musical optimism in order to conceal all the pain, but the fact of the matter is, the Carpenters were always better at sadness than they were at happiness; and I would take their grimly stoned facial expressions on Horizon any day over the plastic smiles and happily patriotic expressions of the Made In America painting.

In the end, this is not the kind of thumbs down that could somehow be retracted because the singer died an awful death two years later — the album does everything in its power to assure us that "we've only just begun" once again (ʽBecause We Are In Loveʼ was played at Karen's wed­ding, one that ended in embarrassment and disaster one year later), but does it far less efficiently and believably than, say, John Lennon's Double Fantasy. In mild defense, neither Karen's voice nor Richard's arranging skills have deteriorated one bit, so the record is still recommendable to all those who are always ready to take the duo at face value.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cat Stevens: Roadsinger

CAT STEVENS (YUSUF ISLAM): ROADSINGER (2009)

1) Welcome Home; 2) Thinking 'Bout You; 3) Everytime I Dream; 4) The Rain; 5) World O' Darkness; 6) Be What You Must; 7) This Glass World; 8) Roadsinger; 9) All Kinds Of Roses; 10) Dream On (Until...); 11) Shamsia.

Perhaps Yusuf thought he'd gone too far in the «flashy» direction with his return to the world of big neon lights; in any case, the follow-up to his comeback is significantly more low-key, retur­ning us to stripped-down times when it used to be just Cat and his acoustic guitar, and everything else was strictly secondary. We still have strings, and rhythm sections, and backing vocals, and even horns on occasion, but they never drown out the basics — and he further accentuates this with the album title and cover, implying that, when all is said and done, Cat-Yusuf is essentially a wise old street busker, and only those few intelligent souls whose instincts are attuned to the words of the wise will bother to stop and listen for a few minutes — for the rest, these sounds will simply blend in with the background noise.

I regret to say that on this occasion, I have not properly managed to ascend to the status of the chosen few. While the material here is definitely comparable with the «average» Cat Stevens balladry of the classic years, nothing has either the immediately captivating nature of ʽMiddayʼ or the curiously experimental nature of ʽThe Belovedʼ or the «odd factor» of ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ. The nature of most of the songs is still calm and pensive rather than turbulent, which is good, because this serenity and peacefulness seems to come very naturally to the aging Cat-Yusuf these days; but unless you are able to slip into the state of a little kid cuddling up on his grandfather's knee and taking in the words of wisdom, or, perhaps, unless you are a grand­father yourself, it will not be easy to assign the record to any specially marked shelf in your memory closet.

The record is very clearly structured around the lyrics this time — little parables or allegories, occasionally confessions, heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian religious and literary tradi­tions, but, ultimately, with relatively simple morals: the central point of the opening number, ʽWelcome Homeʼ, is that "time rolls on, ain't no good to sit and moan", but musically, well, the song could have been written by anybody — probably was, a couple dozen times already — and so, unless you find consolation in the subtle and exclusive magic of the minimalistic slide guitar overdubs, there is nothing but Cat-Yusuf's intangible charisma to feed your pleasure centers. And it's not as if he's lost any of it (inshaʼallah, his voice is pretty much immune to the ravages of time), but it's not as if all those years of religious devotion made it all that more mesmerizing, either. More calm and peaceful he may be, aye, but the «Majikat» stays the same.

Actually, as fun as it is to drop an occasional chuckle about Yusuf's Islam, the idea of putting together the basics of British medieval folk / piano pop and African-American acoustic blues, then cross them with elements of Arabic music and insert some second-hand Sufi wisdom sounds pretty cool; what surprises me is that Roadsinger has way too much Cat Stevens and way too little Yusuf Islam to make a difference — and what surprises me even more is feeling that this is a flaw of Roadsinger, not a virtue. For instance, ʽWorld O' Darknessʼ, dedicated to the fate of Shamsia Husseini, a girl nearly blinded by Taliban goons for attending school in Kandahar, is technically a dark medieval-stylized ballad (with a fairly bad, Eighties-adult-contemporary key­board solo at the end) — with no Eastern musical elements in sight, sympathetic in tone but simply not too interesting in composition or execution. (For that matter, a return to the same theme in the guise of ʽShamsiaʼ, a brief instrumental to close the album, is more curious — a tiny chamber piece with romantic strings adorning Cat's piano — but also totally a Western thing).

Then again, it's okay. After all these years, we see that Cat Stevens is really the same ʽRoadsin­gerʼ that he used to be — aw hell, maybe his embracing of the Qur'anic way of life was just an excuse to skip the Eighties (I, for one, am very much glad that we never got to have a 1986 Cat Stevens album), and then only those 60s/70s stars who did make their 80s albums had to atone for this by making something better in the 90s. And here we have him now, just making more of those acoustic ditties about being completely lonely (title track), always misunderstood (ʽEverytime I Dreamʼ), and still hopelessly romantic at heart (ʽThinking 'Bout Youʼ). He just seems to accept this peacefully now, rather than complaining about it, implying that religion and old age do not make your problems away — you just learn to live with them. Not an amazingly mind-blowing lesson, but at least it is delivered in a non-obnoxious way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Chantays: Waiting For The Tide

THE CHANTAYS: WAITING FOR THE TIDE (1997)

1) Killer Dana; 2) Green Room; 3) Smokin' Da Pipe; 4) Bailout At Frog Rock; 5) Dances With Waves; 6) So. Cal. Jungle; 7) House Rock Rapid; 8) Nightstand; 9) Clear The Room; 10) Descanso Daze; 11) Crystal-T; 12) Pipeline (unplugged).

Perhaps somewhat dissatisfied with the quickie-style recording of Next Set, the three remaining Chantays put their shit together one more time and, three years later, came out with another effort: longer, more ambitious, containing more original material and, probably, their last, since nothing else has been seen from them over the next twenty years, and with Brian Carman's passing in 2015, the story of The Chantays is probably over for good now. As it is, Waiting For The Tide — still waiting after all those years, that is! — is a fairly compelling swan song for them.

Recorded in a proper studio over a certain period of time (rather than just «live») and released on the independent Rocktopia label, this album, if anything, shows that The Chantays were at last beginning to slowly catch up with the times. If Next Set still had them firmly grounded in the early Sixties, with only the added benefit of better production, then Waiting For The Tide has them aiming for... the Seventies, I guess, with a muscular update of the surf-rock sound that takes advantage of all sort of cool innovations in tone, volume, and effects that made up the Seventies' glam-rock and hard rock scene. As in, ʽKiller Danaʼ now sounds like a frickin' Wings cover of a Chantays song — which is quite amusing, by the way.

ʽKiller Danaʼ and ʽBailout At Frog Rockʼ are recycled from Next Set, but largely just because they were new compositions that the band wanted to re-record with even better production and a bit more muscle. Everything else seems to be brand new, the only complete throwback to the past being yet another version of ʽPipelineʼ that closes the album — this time, in full-out acoustic mode, a very pretty arrangement that completely preserves the melody and energy of the original and, perhaps, even adds a pinch of soft lyricism (as well as making the Mexican roots of the song far more obvious than they used to be). And, in solid Chantays tradition, most of the album rocks: only ʽNightstandʼ, a slow ballad unnecessarily spoiled by cheesy adult-contemporary synthesizers in the background (a short trip back into the future of the Eighties?), acts as a breather, though, frankly, The Chantays are not that beastly when they speed up to truly require a breather, and their sentimental compositions were never as fun as their surfing anthems.

And these new anthems are fun! Even more heavily influenced by Mexican music than before, but poppy as hell (ʽGreen Roomʼ would be easily embraced by indie-pop acts all over the world, what with its chugging rhythm caught somewhere in between The Jam and Lindsey Buckingham), true to their titles (ʽDances With Wavesʼ, probably a pun on Kevin Costner, has a tricky rhythm that really does feel like a dance with waves), and offering intelligent variations on familiar themes (I think they took the first chords of ʽSo. Cal. Jungleʼ from Fogerty's ʽOld Man Down The Roadʼ, then turned it into something completely different).

The added length (most of the tunes now run over three minutes, and some get close to the 4-minute mark, which, for The Chantays, has the scope of a frickin' prog-rock epic) may be a little treasonous in relation to classic surf ideology, but is usually justified, i.e. this is not just a matter of useless repeats: ʽCrystal-Tʼ, for instance, is four minutes long because they felt it necessary to accommodate two «modernistic» guitar solos (probably by new band member Ricky Lewis?), one in pompous blues-rock mode and another one incorporating a bit of arpeggiated shredding, some­where in between Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen, though, of course, more timid than either. Surprisingly, these passages feel perfectly at home with the main surf riff — either the guy gets his tone just right, or the mix hushes him down to just the right degree.

I believe that I will go all the way with a thumbs up here: clearly, this is not a record that I will ever put on again of my own free will (we all have much better things to do than revisit comeback albums by one-hit surf-rock wonders, right?), but the creativity and energy of these old guys as they continue to spice up their classic formula deserves respect — and the album is totally fun while it's on. It is probably a good idea that, satisfied with their result, they did not embark on any further adventures (like continuing to catch up with trends and introducing elements of synth-pop, grunge, IDM, and hip-hop, tempting fate all the way up to their own Stalingrad); as it is, The Chantays will just live on in our memories, still waiting, waiting, waiting for that tide.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gene Clark: Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers

GENE CLARK: GENE CLARK WITH THE GOSDIN BROTHERS (1967)

1) Echoes; 2) Think I'm Gonna Feel Better; 3) Tried So Hard; 4) Is Yours Is Mine; 5) Keep On Pushin'; 6) I Found You; 7) So You Say You Lost Your Baby; 8) Elevator Operator; 9) The Same One; 10) Couldn't Believe Her; 11) Needing Someone; 12*) Tried So Hard (alternate version); 13*) Elevator Operator (alternate version); 14*) Only Columbe; 15*) The French Girl; 16*) So You Say You Lost Your Baby (acoustic demo); 17*) Is Yours Is Mine (acoustic demo).

Gene Clark did not really have enough time with The Byrds to establish himself as a significant frontman in the people's eye — too much of it was simply spent standing out there, shaking an unimpressive tambourine and contributing one of several group harmonies; and out of the band's early A-sides, the only Clark-penned song, ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ, scored the lowest on the charts, so, ultimately, only the most astute of the band's fans could have correctly sensed his crucial importance to the band's early period. But he was indeed the first Byrd to be marked with a strong sense of songwriting individuality — preceding David Crosby by at least a couple of years, not to mention a couple extra pounds of intelligence (sorry, Dave!) — and so it was pro­bably inevitable that he would also be the first Byrd to leave the band and start a solo career. (Stage fright and fear of flying are also given as reasons for his quitting, but I guess all of this is really related in the end).

Clark's solo career has always been a hipster's delight: here is a guy who possessed all the know-hows of his original band, yet never achieved (or even strived for) serious commercial success, and cultivated a far more reclusive, solitary image than his bandmates. He did, in fact, spend a large part of 1966 in seclusion, before eventually realising that he had no choice other than to get back into the musical business, and signing up with Columbia for a solo deal — thus becoming one of the first former members of a major rock band to start his own solo career (I think that, technically, only Alan Price of The Animals precedes him in this), and unquestionably the first former member of a major rock band to proudly release his solo debut at the same time (February '67, in this case) as his former band. (A typical opinion is that sales of the record suffered precise­ly because of its simultaneous release with Younger Than Yesterday, but I do not think it could make that much of a difference — after all, if you enter a music store and have to choose between Gene Clark and The Byrds, how is this different from entering the same store on a different day and having to choose between Gene Clark and, say, Jimi Hendrix, or The Beatles?).

Anyway, truth of the matter is that Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers is a very lovely (and tiny — less than half an hour long!) record, but it does not exactly show you a Gene Clark that would be significantly improved over, or even just different from, the Gene Clark of ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ or of ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ. Aided here by some of his Byrds pals (Chirs Hillman plays bass, and Michael Clarke shares drum duties with session players such as Jim Gordon), a big chunk of the Wrecking Crew, and those Gosdin brothers (a country and gospel singing duo with whom the Byrds had already been friends since the early Sixties), Gene delivers a set of folk-pop and country-pop numbers that, some say, pioneer the country-rock twist of the late Sixties, but, as far as I'm concerned, are really a logical and organic continuation of the schtick that Gene had been doing with the Byrds from the very inception. After all, these diffe­rences are subtle — we all know, for instance, that Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is considered to be almost a «revolutionary» album in the genre, but play it back to back with Mr. Tambourine Man to somebody not well-versed in the differences between country-western and, say, Appala­chian folk, and he will never sense much of a gap here.

The charm of the album, however, lies not in its being revolutionary, and not even in its song­writing: from a melodic standpoint, Gene Clark is not much of a genius, and a lot of these tunes rely on stock phrasing from folk, country, and blues-rock — to the extent that two of the songs (ʽIs Yours Is Mineʼ and ʽElevator Operatorʼ) have the exact same introductions, albeit played in a folksy, jangly manner on the former and in a rock-out manner on the latter. The charm lies in Gene Clark's personal charisma, and his ability to perfectly integrate his handsome and intelligent vocals into equally handsome and intelligent musical arrangements.

Thus, the opening number, ʽEchoesʼ, is not so much of a song as it is a long poem, somewhere midway between Dylan and Van Morrison, set to a baroque-influenced arrangement of wood­winds and strings floating above its folk-rock underbelly. Put out by Columbia as a single, it probably had no hopes due to a concise lack of anything resembling a hook — perhaps they thought the flutes and strings would give it a ʽWalk Away Renéeʼ look, forgetting that the Left Banke actually had a singalong chorus as well — but it did well enough in confirming Gene's reputation as a visionary musical poet, revealing a stream-of-consciousness approach that would have probably been judged as way too extreme for the Byrds (although Crosby was already beginning to follow the same path at the time). For the record, Leon Russell himself is respon­sible for the string arrangements here, and he did a great job ensuring that they sound lush and expansive without being too sappy or corny.

Later on, verses and choruses begin to appear, but compared to Gene's Byrds material, they all seem low-key and suffering from a lack of dynamics — nothing like, for instance, the group harmony punch that cuts across the verse of ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ and provides a hefty conclusion to the soft sarcasm of the first three lines. Compare this album's ʽThink I'm Gonna Feel Betterʼ, dealing with pretty much the same feeling but having nothing like that punch (it does have a key change from verse to bridge, but it doesn't do the song much good) — a far inferior folk-pop ditty here, though the vocal sentiment is still adorable.

Repeated listens bring out patches of cool musical ideas here and there; for instance, the «wag­ging», spiralling lead guitar lines on ʽIs Yours Is Mineʼ, rolling across the sharp main bluesy riff, surprisingly predict the guitar gymnastics of Television on ʽMarquee Moonʼ (and whoever said Television weren't influenced by classic country-rock?), and the dirge-like procession of ʽThe Same Oneʼ, lulling you with its monotonous jangle, is interrupted now and then by an almost dangerous-sounding downward bass/guitar drift — a bit of proto-Sabbath doom atmosphere making a surprising guest appearance on what began as a meditative mournful performance. But you do have to hunt for them, and unless you are already sold on Gene's voice and style, you will probably not be inclined to delve into such intricacies — especially since for every one non-stan­dard musical move, you will have two or three generic country or blues-rock riffs.

The hardest rocking number is ʽElevator Operatorʼ, whose title currently has the disadvantage of sounding similar to Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Elevatorʼ — but Gene uses his elevator for meta­phors of turbulent relationships rather than sexual fantasies, and lands a tune that is also, elevator-style, caught somewhere between the Beatles' and the Stones' respective floors (the basic melody is close to ʽTaxmanʼ, the harmonies show traces of Beatlesque '65-'66 psychedelia, but the guitar tones and solos are far closer to the Richard/Jones line of work). It is decent enough, but feels a bit lonesome surrounded by all these baroque ballads and fast country-poppers. The theme is pretty much the same, though: stay away from mean bitches. And by «mean bitches», I assume he is really referring — meta-metaphorically — to some of his former bandmates rather than his former (or current) love interests. I mean, "s/he was an elevator operator, s/he had her ups and downs" could just as well refer to Roger McGuinn, no?

In the end, the record is certainly a must for all Byrds / classic country-rock-with-a-slightly-baroque-and/or-psychedelic-twist fans, but I could not define it as some sort of «lost classic»: to do so requires falling in love with Gene Clark, the loner, the visionary, the poet, the troubadour, on the same level that people fall in love with their Nick Drakes or their Syd Barretts, and the man is just a tad too smooth for that. Which certainly does not prevent the album from getting its thumbs up, because how could a young, romantic, solo-going Gene Clark not be altogether love­ly all the way back in 1967? Even if that special something that he took away with him from The Byrds needed The Byrds — and certainly not The Gosdin Brothers, whose contributions to this album, in my opinion, certainly do not deserve any special mention and only reflect a degree of friendliness on Gene's part — to set it truly aflame, it is very comforting to see it still giving off some treasurable warmth for some time afterwards.

On a technical note, the expanded CD reissue of the album, despite bringing its running time up to a respectable 42 minutes, is hardly essential — with a few alternate takes, acoustic demos, and only two really new extra songs (one of them a pretty, piano-based rearrangement of Ian & Syl­via's ʽThe French Girlʼ) that do not provide any special insights. For big fans, however, this will be an extra 15 minutes of pleasant prettiness — and on the acoustic demos, you get to really feel how Clark's vocals merge with the Gosdin Brothers into one (although why should they?).

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Bent Knee: Bent Knee

BENT KNEE: BENT KNEE (2011)

1) Urban Circus; 2) I Don't Love You Anymore; 3) Funeral; 4) I've Been This Way Before; 5) After Years Of Love; 6) Little Specks Of Calcium; 7) Styrofoam Heart; 8) Nave.

So, what sort of music should one expect from a group named «Bent Knee»? My first answer would probably be «jazz fusion», because this is the kind of thoroughly meaningless title that we typically encounter on all-instrumental records by them jazz wankers. However, once you learn that the name is actually an amalgamation of the names of the group's leaders — guitarist Ben Levin and keyboardist/singer Courtney Swain — the answer is probably going to shift to «indie pop», because only (or at least, mostly) indie pop artists engage in that kind of silliness mixed with gratuitous egotism.

Odd enough, while Bent Knee are certainly much closer to indie pop than to jazz fusion, their project is far more ambitious than simply making music according to one or two set formulas. After all, they came together in the Berklee College of Music, which, according to the Wikipedia description, "offers college-level courses in a wide range of contemporary and historic styles, including rock, flamenco, hip hop, reggae, salsa, and bluegrass", and one would be sorely disap­pointed if the alumni of such a wonderful place would waste their tuition fees on anything less than Comprehensive and Total Eclecticism. In other words, Bent Knee make music that is all over the place — so all over the place, in fact, that they will always have a hard time trying to make us understand what exactly is it all about.

In simple terms and in the first place, it is probably all about the vocals of Courtney Swain, which happen to be the first attention-grabbing component of the record. Timbre-wise, she reminds me most of Beth Gibbons, with whom she shares similar levels of intensity and knife-sharpness; on the other hand, she is much more of a «rock» singer than Beth, and often shows a pissed-off, hysterical side that is more reminiscent of that other Courtney... (I do so hope that hard drugs are a no-no at the Berklee College, but Swain looks perfectly healthy to me). It is on the more quiet numbers, such as ʽFuneralʼ, where she tends to fade into the background: her lyrical side is com­petent, but unexceptional, and she is truly at her best when her bandmates start lighting up the little pieces of paper between her toes. They also like to put subtle, Björkish electronic effects on her vocals sometimes, or run them through an echo chamber for an even more epic reaction, which is fine enough if the source vocal is already powerful on its own.

As for the music, Bent Knee is hard to categorize in any other terms than the general designation of «indie rock», whatever that term is supposed to mean in the 2010s. Thus, ʽUrban Circusʼ opens proceedings in near-classic «industrial» mode, with distorted factory-level power blasts against which Swain's desperate voice is battling as against prison bars. It's like the gloom of classic Portishead, enhanced by the cling-clang of classic Nine Inch Nails, though not as deep penetra­ting as either: Bent Knee have the typical «college kid» problem in that, as artists, it is hard for them to go all the way — they are, apparently, a bunch of deeply normal and well-meaning young people, greatly moved and influenced by their moves and influences, but not as deeply disturbed and wasted as any of those influences. Still, the very first track shows that they know how to create a good old ruckus, and how to make the listener pay attention by cleverly using the loud-quiet dynamics, integrating acoustic and electronic elements, and merging together elements of ye olde blues-rock, noise, and avantgarde jazz.

Perhaps their biggest mistake is in trying to make themselves look «darker» than they actually are. Most of the songs have a sweeping tragic feel; most of the lyrics are about relationships gone wrong and the cosmic consequences of that; most of the time Courtney Swain sounds either angry at her man, sad about her man, or crazy because her man drove her to it. It rarely seems sincere, and the overall feel is more theatrical, reaching vaudevillian peaks when they actually go for straightahead vaudeville — once, on the crazy polka number ʽI've Been This Way Beforeʼ — but always feeling like they are just putting on a show for us even on the most «intimate» numbers (the acoustic ballad ʽAfter Years Of Loveʼ, which eventually grows into a lushly psychedelic Floydian meadow of chiming pianos, slide guitars, and distant vocal harmonies). Nevertheless, almost everything they do is interesting at least in some respect: every track shows either musical or, yep, theatrical creativity.

Thus, ʽI Don't Love You Anymoreʼ in its first fifteen seconds combines impressionist piano playing, synth-pop, and «heavy industrial blues-rock» — with the guitarist throwing in a flashy Van Halen-esque guitar solo, and Swain's multi-tracked vocals raising fifty times more hell around her imaginary lover than, say, a Taylor Swift could do with an army of producers behind her back. On ʽLittle Specks Of Calciumʼ, they invent a cozy little twee-pop melody only to de­construct it to total minimalism, and then follow it up with a moody dialog between incompatible lovers ("but you are frozen... cold... frozen... cold..." — "and you are burning me alive! you are burning me alive!") that is a great find by itself (I only wish they could have found a better musi­cal realisation for it, with two counter-motifs, perhaps, rather than this monotonous industrial pump). And on the album's longest track, ʽStyrofoam Heartʼ, they combine everything they got (gorgeous singing, hysterical singing, beautiful harmonies, ominous harmonies, romantic piano rolls, heavy metal, and mourning woo-woo-woos that seem incidentally ripped off from Radio­head's ʽStreet Spiritʼ — which reminds me that I probably did not yet mention Radiohead as a serious influence on these guys, but then, should I really have?..).

The good news, then, is that Bent Knee created their own sound; the bad news is that they have not been able to solve the nagging problem — this sound is all too easily decomposed into con­stituents, each of which on its own is ultimately preferable to the synthesis. Yet even so, the band manages to stand out against its peers by taking things to an overall higher level of intensity than most do. And the fact that they have set themselves such a wide territory to cover with their for­mula also made it worth the while to hold your breath and wait for whatever else they might have in store for us. In the meantime, this self-titled debut certainly deserves its thumbs up.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: The Brightness

ANAÏS MITCHELL: THE BRIGHTNESS (2007)

1) Your Fonder Heart; 2) Of A Friday Night; 3) Namesake; 4) Shenandoah; 5) Changer; 6) Song Of The Magi; 7) Santa Fe Dream; 8) Hobo's Lullaby; 9) Old Fashioned Hat; 10) Hades & Persephone; 11) Out Of Pawn.

Perhaps Hymns For The Exiled did not qualify as a neo-folk masterpiece, but its open outrage at the contemporary state of affairs in the artist's home country did attract the attention of Ani Di­Franco, one of the toughest human right warriors alive in the female domain, and this not only got Mitchell on Ani's Righteous Babe Records, but also helped her get some much-needed promotion: from this point on, critical reviews of her albums gradually become more numerous, and since her kind of art is particularly attractive to critics (unusual voice + intelligent lyrics + acoustic guitars = near-instant win), this means that somewhere in between 2004 and 2007, and particularly with the release of her first album on RBR, Anaïs Mitchell became a local celebrity.

Nevertheless, The Brightness is still a very low-key affair. Acoustic guitar, piano, and some violas and cellos from time to time is all you hear; and furthermore, ironically, The Brightness is much, much less politically charged than its predecessor. Much of it is about Mitchell herself, and some of it is just a series of musical-lyrical vignettes that may be interpreted any way you like. If we are to describe her current sound in «synthetic» terms, it would probably be a combination of Woody Guthrie / early Dylan (in terms of her melodic content; see especially ʽHobo's Lullabyʼ, or that last song which begins with a direct quotation from Bob's ʽSong To Woodyʼ), Leonard Cohen (in terms of her attempting to convey some moral or some mystery by means of some unexpected lyrical parable), and, well, the usual Bush/Amos/Newsom conglomerate — in terms of her being a woman who sings in a strange voice, the «innocent girl soul stuck in an experi­enced woman body».

Not that it hadn't been that way before, but it seems as if The Brightness is her first album on which the style has matured, consolidated, and even fossilized. She is not straining too hard to make a social statement, but neither does she look like a person desperately searching for some­thing. Most of the songs either give advice ("come out, come on, come outside" — the first line of the opening song) or make observations, and a few songs lightly wax nostalgic over the good old days (ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ). There is very little to get irritated about, and even less to get ex­cited about; the question is one of possibly acknowledging and enjoying the record's small and subtle charms, or ignoring and rejecting them altogether.

I will mention a few examples whose subtlety I personally found quite pleasant. ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ (I can very easily picture this one as sung by Joni Mitchell and placed somewhere at the beginning of Blue or her other pre-jazz period records) harbors a cool poetic idea and expresses it with gusto — the climactic end of the song is basically a hopeless plea for the nameless "old poet" to come back so that the protagonist could take on the shapes of all his former objects of description and inspiration ("I'll be a good time gambler, I'll be a restless wife..."); if we take this analysis very very far, we might end up stating that ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ is nothing less than a curtain call on Old World Artistry (but we will not take it that far).

Another definite highlight is ʽHades & Persephoneʼ (apparently, Mitchell thought so herself, or else she wouldn't base her entire next record around it): she uses the Orpheus myth here as a pre­text for having the two protagonists of the song discuss the meaning of life (one of the conclu­sions they reach is that "the earth is a bird on a spit in the sky"; be warned that this is about as deep as Mitchell's philosophy goes, but then, she is really an artist, not a philosopher, so perhaps it'll do), and there is something nasty, urgent, and disturbing in each of her "how long, how long, how long?"'s that Hades and Persephone trade between each other.

Human right activists will gladly welcome ʽSong Of The Magiʼ, which begins innocently enough as a sad folk retelling of the Bethlehem story, but then, as a morose cello joins the acoustic guitar, suddenly makes a transition to the current state of Israel ("a child is born in Bethlehem... born in a cattle pen... born on the killing floor... waiting for the war... your home is a checkpoint now", etc. etc.). The smooth linkage of Christmas joys with Near Eastern agony is an idea that might work well on paper; unfortunately, sound-wise the song is way too toothless to make much of an im­pression, and I wouldn't probably even have mentioned it if I did not look closely at the printed lyrics at one point.

And that is the continuing trouble: most of these songs are still more interesting for their words than for their melodies. From that point of view, the smooth alliance between Mitchell and Ani DiFranco, one of the world's most ardent warriors but also most mediocre songwriters, is troub­ling: something like ʽNamesakeʼ, with its addition of lite jazz brass, sounds almost exactly like Ani's band at one of their less inspired sessions (and most of her band's sessions sound pretty uninspired to me). Also troubling are such discoveries as the main acoustic melody of ʽSanta Fe Dreamʼ, doubled by the vocals, essentially being a slight variation on Pink Floyd's ʽWish You Were Hereʼ — which is probably why the song made me pay attention, yet never really lived up to that opening flourish of "if it should happen...".

I guess, in the end, the main shortcoming of The Brightness, which it admittedly shares with hundreds of other decent-but-mediocre albums, is that it sounds too intellectualized to elicit some sharp emotional response, but not enough intellectualized to reveal any startling surprises or make you reconsider some of life's truths and lies. But if you set your expectations to nil, then The Brightness will just be a cool old statement of happiness and sorrow from the bright young girl next door. Like, at the end she will give her humble regards to post-Katrina New Orleans, which is just... nice. Even if she has to borrow a bit from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to do it, for no apparent reason. Then again, maybe it is precisely the things that she does for no apparent reason that make this record more tolerable and appreciable than it could be otherwise.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Celtic Frost: Parched With Thirst Am I And Dying

CELTIC FROST: PARCHED WITH THIRST AM I AND DYING (1985-1991; 1992)

1) Idols Of Chagrin; 2) A Descent To Babylon (Babylon Asleep); 3) Return To The Eve; 4) Juices Like Wine; 5) The Inevitable Factor; 6) The Heart Beneath; 7) Cherry Orchards; 8) Tristesses De La Lune; 9) Wings Of Solitude; 10) The Usurper; 11) Journey Into Fear; 12) Downtown Hanoi; 13) Circle Of The Tyrants; 14) In The Chapel In The Moonlight; 15) I Won't Dance (The Elders Orient); 16) The Name Of My Bride; 17) Mexican Radio; 18) Under Apollyon's Sun.

The importance of this compilation, originally released in 1992, has now significantly decreased since many of its tracks were dispersed as bonus additions to remastered CD editions of the band's overall catalog. Even in 1992, however, it was a somewhat strange package, interspersing rarities and oddities with an almost random selection of tracks taken from albums all the way back to Mega Therion (but, strangely, not Morbid Tales). Whether the old fans even back then were happy to receive an additional copy of three numbers from Cold Lake and three more from Vanity/Nemesis is a big question. Whether the presence of four previously unreleased songs was enough of an incentive to make them tolerate these additional copies is an even bigger one.

Anyway, here is a brief rundown on these «lost treasures». ʽIdols Of Chagrinʼ is the reworking of a 1991 demo — a slow Vanity/Nemesis-style power metal riff-rocker, with some chords soun­ding dangerously close to AC/DC's ʽRock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollutionʼ and the general atmos­phere reminiscent of both AC/DC and Accept (but with far uglier vocals). ʽThe Inevitable Factorʼ is an outtake from Cold Lake, ironically featuring a more memorable riff than most of the regu­lar songs on there, but again spoiled by silly «dying metal Tristan» vocals. ʽJourney Into Fearʼ is a very old outtake (from 1985), and thus, faster, more aggressive, and more fun than all the later outtakes — but nothing in particular here with which you were not already acquainted on To Mega Therion. Finally, ʽUnder Apollyon's Sunʼ (I think they sort of confused Apollyon, the Greek equi­valent of Abaddon, with the god Apollo here, but perhaps this was intentional) is ano­ther demo from 1991, but this time with a more Sabbath-esque riff, and an almost industrial crunch in the middle — melodically, perhaps, the most ambitious of these tunes.

Other than that, you have a few remixed versions (ʽDowntown Hanoiʼ from Cold Lake, for instance) with cleaner and sharper guitar sound, which probably still does not redeem them as much as we'd want to, and a few scooped-up rare jokes, such as the black metal take on the old popu­lar standard ʽIn The Chapel In The Moonlightʼ (from a 1987 promotional EP). It all works fine as a career retrospective, especially if you rectify the dumb running order of the tracks, but not a single moment here is truly eye-opening in any sense: at no stage in their diverse career, apparently, did Celtic Frost produce something so unusual that they would decide to keep it hidden from us until they ran out of new material. Thus, for completists only.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Carpenters: Christmas Portrait

CARPENTERS: CHRISTMAS PORTRAIT (1978)

1) O Come, O Come Emmanuel!; 2) Overture; 3) Christmas Waltz; 4) Sleigh Ride; 5) It's Christmas Time / Sleep Well, Little Children; 6) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 7) Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town; 8) Christmas Song; 9) Silent Night; 10) Jingle Bells; 11) First Snowfall / Let It Snow; 12) Carol Of The Bells; 13) Merry Christ­mas, Darling; 14) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 15) Christ Is Born; 16) Winter Wonderland / Silver Bells / White Christmas; 17) Ave Maria.

If you happen to like your Christmas albums and prefer that the artist respect the source material rather than deconstruct it, reinterpret it, enslave it to his twisted will and sinister purposes, then Christmas Portrait, probably not coincidentally released by Richard and Karen Carpenter on the exact same day as AC/DC's If You Want Blood You've Got It, has a good chance of becoming your favorite Christmas album of all time. They could have expanded upon the cautious experi­mentation of Passage — but given its lackluster chart performance, probably decided that this road was not for them, after all, and decided to apply their musical talents elsewhere. Somehow, they remembered, they hadn't done a Christmas album yet; and since a Christmas album for Carpenters seems as natural as a live album for The Who, or an album about death and decay for The Doors, or an album about merry gay sailors for Elton John, they went ahead with the idea. (Particularly since they'd already written one Christmas song, ʽMerry Christmas Darlingʼ, as early as 1970 — it is also included here, but with a new vocal recorded by Karen).

The specific nature of the duo's approach to Christmas is in the sheer grandness of the project. This is the first Carpenters LP to run over 45 minutes, and the first one to start out with a proper overture — five minutes of orchestral snippets for both performed and unperformed songs. Actu­ally, they recorded enough material for a double album, but wisely decided to hold off, because, you know, people also need some time to eat their turkey. (The rest of it was shelved for six years, only appearing after Karen's death). Even so, what with all the introductions, codas, links and transitions, Christmas Portrait feels more like a coherent «folk mass» of sorts than just a dis­jointed series of Christmas carols, a single lengthy ritual performed conquering-style by Good Christmas Fairy Karen and her loyal band of dwarf and elf henchmen, molded into the shape of a sugary-suave symphonic orchestra.

That said, do not hold high hopes: Richard is a professional and inspired arranger, but his inspi­ration in such matters rarely hovers above Disney levels, and every bit of this music, be it purely instrumental (ʽCarol Of The Bellsʼ, etc.) or vocal-based, is designed for nothing more and nothing less than sentimental family entertainment. Unfortunately, Karen is also helpless to add any extra dimensions in this situation: she is serving here as a conductor of the old-fashioned Christmas spirit and is consciously leaving all of her «dark strains» on the shelf (not that she could be blamed for that — it is awesome when performers try to identify the darker sides of Christmas mate­rial, but expecting non-trivial activities like that from Carpenters is like expecting modesty and humility from The Donald). At least her vocal frequencies and intonations help avoid extra sappiness; but I cannot single out even one song that would strike a particularly vulnerable / sen­sitive string in my own soul. It's all just nice, tolerable Christmas fare.

It is good, however, that most of the songs are short or, if long, actually constitute medleys: this creates a fast-rotating kaleidoscope of sub-moods (giggly, joyful, pensive, solemn, whatever) that, if anything, brings the Christmas ritual to life, so that the whole thing does not come across as too rigid or square. Still, it also pretty much kills off any hopes anybody could have about Passage opening some new stage in the duo's history — and with Karen's rapidly deteriorating condition (not to mention Richard's ongoing addiction to Quaaludes), that history, alas, was already coming to an end.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Cat Stevens (Yusuf): An Other Cup

CAT STEVENS (YUSUF): AN OTHER CUP (2006)

1) Midday (Avoid City After Dark); 2) Heaven / Where True Love Goes; 3) Maybe There's A World; 4) One Day At A Time; 5) When Butterflies Leave; 6) In The End; 7) Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood; 8) I Think I See The Light; 9) Whispers From A Spiritual Garden; 10) The Beloved; 11) Green Fields, Golden Sands.

Yusuf Islam first went back to record-making in 1995; however, for a long time his records were purely religious affairs, mostly oriented at children and using spoken-word or poetry tracks with minimal musical accompaniment (percussion) that taught the little ones about the main principles of the Islamic faith, about the various accomplishments of the Prophet, and about the basics of suicide bombing (okay, not really, bad bad joke). We will not be discussing these records here; this is something you can do with your local imam or mullah.

However, by the time century 21 began rolling along, Yusuf apparently felt the urge to return to real music — and not just to begin writing songs again (something that he had still been doing on occasion during his years of retirement from the public eye), but to actually reboot his musical career. Whatever was the true reason behind that, we might never know, and «The Artist For­merly Known As Cat Stevens» might not understand it perfectly well himself, but considering that one major factor behind his quitting was a deep hatred of the music business, exacerbated by his religious conversion, it is possible that he — like many other people — eventually saw the situation in the 21st century, with its numerous indie labels and possibilities of making professio­nal recordings without the mediation of greedy music business bastards, as liberating. Besides, it seems that his son was constantly nagging him about getting back to music, and there's nothing like a whiny 21-year old kid with musical interests of his own to make your Dad real jealous.

Yusuf Islam went about it the smart way, though — thirty years of direct conversations with Allah are no laughing matter, after all. He set up his own record label, «Ya Records» (regular distribution was still handled by Polydor and Atlantic); credited the album to «Yusuf» rather than «Yusuf Islam» so as not to repulse or provoke Muslim haters (particularly those Muslim haters who are too ignorant to understand where the name Yusuf comes from); largely avoided direct references to his faith in most of the songs (although mid-Eastern motives may be found in some of the music, and Islamic symbolism is frequently detected in some of the lyrics); and actively promoted the album with a string of TV and concert appearances, pleasantly surprising audiences by the apparent lack of a kuffiyeh on his head.

The most pleasant surprise, however, was that he'd made some nice music. It would be unwise to expect that An Other Cup would consist of ardent religious preaching: other than a few uncom­fortable and somewhat ill-interpreted comments on Salman Rushdie, Cat-Yusuf had done nothing in those past decades that would permit to describe him as a militaristic zealot, nor was there any indication that, like Dylan in 1979, he'd embraced his new religion more with an idea to confuse and bewilder his followers than anything else. On the other hand, considering how inconsistent his music-making was in the Seventies and for how long he was not involved in music-making at all after that, how could our expectations be high for this comeback? My guess was: a few acous­tic-based sermons, parables, and allegories, delivered gently, peacefully, and in an instantly for­gettable fashion from a kind, friendly, and washed-out grandfather.

And it is a very pleasant surprise when, after such expectations, the very first song proves you wrong: ʽMidday (Avoid City After Dark)ʼ is, indeed, a gently and peacefully delivered acoustic-and-piano-based allegory, but it is anything but forgettable — a simple, but catchy pop song with very well-placed brass interludes (where the brass part actually fulfills the function of the chorus) and a brilliant mix of friendliness and sadness, every bit as affecting as anything the man had done earlier. To add to the surprise, Cat-Yusuf's voice has not aged one bit — in fact, it has only become more smooth and silky, closer in tone to the early Cat Stevens of 1967 than to the mid-Seventies rough-'n'-edgy Cat Stevens. And, in a way, I am more fond of this calm and serene Cat Stevens than the perturbed and hystrionic Cat Stevens of the mid-Seventies: now that he has alle­gedly found peace and is simply enjoying his ride on that train, he seems to have found a better balance between his inner spirituality and his musical arrangements (which, let's face it, had been quite timid and inadequate to reflect his inner turmoil, and frequently made me suspect that the turmoil itself was nowhere near as grand as he tried to picture it with his words and voice).

Somewhat disappointingly, ʽMiddayʼ turns out to be the highest point of the new album, as none of the other songs are as instantaneously memorable. But it sets the right vibe that is preserved for the entire record, ensuring that at worst, it sounds pleasant, inoffensive, and wise; and at best, the songs slowly grow on you, because Stevens has not lost his taste for cautious experimentation. Unfortunately, the most experimental of these numbers is ʽThe Belovedʼ, the only song on the album that is directly related to his faith — a hymn of adulation for The Prophet ("his mercy stretched from East to West / to every man, woman and child" — not quite what even the tradi­tional ahadith tell us, but at least for Cat-Yusuf, it's always about a peaceful message), inter­woven with mid-Eastern musical themes and vocalizing in a somewhat predictable manner. But on the other songs, he still continues to look for pleasant sonic combos, utilizing a large array of acoustic instruments — in fact, I think I prefer this remake of ʽI Think I See The Lightʼ from Mona Bone Jakon over the original, which was almost all piano; here, there is more tension created by the acoustic bass, and the organ doubling the piano adds more depth, while the newly added jazzy brass-heavy coda completes the song with a «glorious-epic» flourish.

It is less clear why he decided to revive the "heaven must've programmed you" bit from the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ, merging it with a new song (ʽWhere True Love Goesʼ), but I guess that anyone in Cat-Yusuf's place would have been tempted to insert a few self-referential pointers after thirty years of retirement. Another gesture that must have had a special meaning for him was covering ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ — Cat-Yusuf, as you can easily see by perusing his website, is extremely sensitive to people forming various misconceptions about him (like, his daughters do wear the hijab — TRUE; he does not converse with women who do not — FALSE), and this dramatic, heavily baroque-orchestrated reading of the song is quite touching.

I would not go as far as to say that Cat-Yusuf has truly attained the state of one of those Sufi sages who, with their presence and devotion, may command respect even on the part of the staun­chest atheists. But on the whole, An Other Cup paints a very satisfactory portrait of somebody who has found internal happiness and peace with himself (not without occasional quirks), yet is not striving to jump out of his skin so as to show the world just how precisely happy he is (in con­trast to the old Cat, who was always jumping out of his skin so as to show the world just how precisely disturbed and unhappy he was). I expected to hear something either very boring or very irritating here — and got such a big surprise that I am even willing to forget some of the weaker ballads, and go along with a thumbs up. I'm sure even Mr. Salman Rushdie himself couldn't have anything personal against a friendly record like this — provided he did not know who the artist was, of course.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Chantels: We Are The Chantels

THE CHANTELS: WE ARE THE CHANTELS (1958)

1) Maybe; 2) The Plea; 3) Come My Little Baby; 4) Congratulations; 5) Prayee; 6) He's Gone; 7) I Love You So; 8) Every Night; 9) Whoever You Are; 10) How Could You Call It Off?; 11) Sure Of Love; 12) If You Try.

Allegedly, the first relatively successful African-American girl group were The Bobbettes, whose ʽMr. Leeʼ (available on various Atlantic compilations) is a fun, giggly romp and who lasted all the way up to 1974 — but with only a small handful of singles to their name. The Chantels, how­ever, came right on their heels, and with ʽMaybeʼ, pretty much invented the classic girl group sound. Technically, it is still in the doo-wop paradigm, but with Richard Barrett's loud, brash piano playing and lead singer Arlene Smith's go-all-the-way shrill, gospel-and-classical-influ­en­ced vocals, ʽMaybeʼ does to doo-wop pretty much the same thing that the Beatles did to pop music. It isn't much of a song, but it's a hell of a performance, and it must have sounded just as liberating for young girls in 1958 as Little Richard did for young boys.

The good news is that the single caught on so well that The Chantels got to release a whole LP on the End Records label — no mean feat in 1958 for five young girls from The Bronx, who probab­ly deserve to have their names listed: Arlene Smith, Sonia Goring, Renee Minus, Jackie Landry, and Lois Harris. The bad news is that, although Richard Barrett (lead singer for The Valentines who took the girls under his patronage and produced their records) wrote some songs for them and Arlene Smith herself also contributed to some of the numbers, most of the other tunes pale in comparison to ʽMaybeʼ, largely based on the same '50s progression but not adding much to the original impact — not surprising for a cautious pioneering act in the late Fifties, but twelve songs set to the exact same doo-wop melody can be as mind-rotting as twelve 12-bar blues tunes in a row. Correction: eleven songs — the twelfth one, ʽCome My Little Babyʼ, is the only one here to feature a more playful R&B sound, a massive sax solo, group vocals rather than lead vocal with harmonies... and is the most embarrassing and silly one of the lot.

Repeated listens still bring out some specific goodness in the Smith/Barrett collaboration on ʽThe Pleaʼ, with some of the most nicely chirped baby-baby-baby's ever, and in the bass-heavy ʽCon­gratulationsʼ, which describes the classic situation of betrayal with a nice mix of desperation, sarcasm, and arrogance. But overall, it is useless to dwell on the minor differences between the songs — as a single, somewhat monochrome package, they all get by largely on the strength of Arlene Smith's lead vocal, in the tenseness and shrill power of which you can see the seeds of everybody from The Ronettes to The Shangri-La's (particularly the Shangri-La's, with their em­phasis on total broken-heartedness). And after all, it is not that bad to have to listen to 11 cases of the doo-wop progression in a row when you have such a great voice to drive 'em.

The weirdest deal here might be with the original album cover where, for some reason, the Bronx ladies are dressed in «Southern Plantation» style despite not having anything whatsoever to do with the art of cotton picking. Maybe somebody found that embarrassing even in 1958, because the album cover was quickly withdrawn and replaced with an even weirder choice of two utterly white teenagers, a girl and a boy, picking out a Chantels song on the jukebox — then again, ʽMaybeʼ did hit #15 on the pop charts (in addition to #2 on the R&B charts), implying that white folks were probably just as enthralled by this new sound as black folks. But regardless of the silly (or offensive, if you prefer to look at it from a 21st century perspective) taste in album covers, and regardless even of the not-too-great variety of compositions, We Are The Chantels deserves a thumbs up for both historical importance and one fine wave of personal charisma.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Hollies: For Certain Because...

THE HOLLIES: FOR CERTAIN BECAUSE... (1966)

1) What's Wrong With The Way I Live; 2) Pay You Back With Interest; 3) Tell Me To My Face; 4) Clown; 5) Suspicious Look In Your Eyes; 6) It's You; 7) High Classed; 8) Peculiar Situation; 9) What Went Wrong; 10) Cru­sader; 11) Don't Even Think About Changing; 12) Stop! Stop! Stop!; 13*) On A Carousel; 14*) All The World Is Love.

Late 1966 was a great time for talented pop artists — in some ways, this was the last stop where you could still be a moderately ambitious pop band, investing all you've got into three-minute long upbeat ditties with catchy choruses, before ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ and its ilk put an end to that; at the same time, even that three-minute format already allowed for all sorts of expansion and experimentation, with Revolver being the most obvious example of that. Not surprisingly, it was in late 1966 that The Hollies reached their absolute creative peak — the time was simply per­fect for all their talents to shine through without much danger of failing in areas to which those talents were far less suited. As psychedelic artists, Clarke, Hicks and Nash would spend the next year struggling; as daring and dashing pop artists, 1966 was their year ("took a long time to come", some of the Zombies might add).

All twelve songs on For Certain Because..., their second LP from 1966, are originals, all of them credited directly to Clarke/Hicks/Nash (by then, they had dropped the silly collec­tive pseudonym of «Ransford»). Only one of them was separately released as a single (ʽStop! Stop! Stop!ʼ, again placed at the end of the album), and by the scarceness of bonus tracks on the expanded CD release you can see that they were all but ready to make the transition to the LP era, fairly content now on issuing just one non-LP single per half-year — in this case, it is ʽOn A Carouselʼ, separated from the LP by about two months' time. More importantly, all of the songs on the LP show signs of careful writing: no glaring toss-offs, in fact, almost any of these tunes (Clarke's, at least) could have single potential.

Although everybody shares the same credits, the difference between the principal songwriters, reflected in who sings lead vocals on what, has become very much pronounced now — and it is becoming clear that while Clarke specifically writes «Hollies-tailored» stuff, suitable for both his powerhouse vocals and the group's collective harmonies, Nash is going off on a more solo-oriented tangent, with compositions that are softer, more low-key, more pensive. ʽTell Me To My Faceʼ has a bit of a French pop flair, with a fast, but slightly melancholic lead guitar flourish and a depressed rather than angry vocal part. ʽClownʼ furthers Graham's infatuation with circus ima­gery (remember ʽFifi The Fleaʼ), a grim ballad whose jangly guitars have been shoved so deep in the mix that their subterranean chiming takes on an ominous flavor. And ʽCrusaderʼ, an even slower example of pseudo-medieval folk-pop (with Clarke and Nash sharing lead vocals this time around), is the darkest of 'em all, though still melancholic rather than suicidal. None of these three tunes could be called atmospheric masterpieces — because this is still a very light and safe type of darkness, nothing like The Doors — but each of them selects a point to make and then makes it, and besides, they act as efficient mood-breakers in between all the upbeat stuff.

The upbeat stuff is, of course, what this record is going to be remembered by in the first place. Once again, the LP starts out with an adrenaline-pumping killer opener — ʽWhat's Wrong With The Way I Liveʼ is a self-asserting anthem to personal freedom, this type, of a general rather than sexual nature, and there can be nothing wrong, really, with a song that hooks you up from its very first seconds: with the title delivered so boldly and aggressively, who could really dare to tell Allan Clarke what is wrong with the way he lives? Even Tony Hicks' banjo playing on the song sounds cocky and defiant in this context.

From then on, the hooks never let go — ʽPay You Back With Interestʼ (in addition to the vocal hook, note the quirky tempo changes, the odd echo on the opening piano lines, the strange solo that seemingly consists of chiming bells); ʽSuspicious Look In Your Eyesʼ (probably the most Byrds-influenced song here, but with Roger McGuinn's tenderness exchanged for Allan Clarke's sarcasm); ʽIt's Youʼ (this is probably what ʽLove Me Doʼ would have sounded like had the Beatles decided to write it in 1966 rather than 1962 — a far more creative use for the harmonica here, nested among far more powerful vocal harmonies and more of that cocky banjo); ʽPeculiar Situationʼ (whose soulful verses, not very interesting on their own, take a sharp turn and smash you in the head with one of the album's most stunning vocal choruses); ʽWhat Went Wrongʼ — another great build-up to the chorus, this time aided by a clever brass arrangement (note some melodic parallels here with The Easybeats' ʽFriday On My Mindʼ — incidental, since both songs were released at about the same time). The cabaret throwback ʽHigh Classedʼ, which should probably have been performed by the band in drag, teasing drunk audiences with striptease ele­ments, is at least amusing; and ʽDon't Even Think About Changingʼ (the only song here on which Eric Haydock still plays bass; on everything else, we hear new member Bernie Calvert) does a strange thing by ripping off ʽEverybody Needs Somebody To Loveʼ for its main melody, but still ends up as an original pop song, though probably not a highlight.

All of this eventually leads to ʽStop! Stop! Stop!ʼ, Hicks' defining moment of conquering the banjo (which he plays a little raga-style here, as if it were a sitar) and Clarke's defining moment of story-telling — I don't think he ever went higher or deeper than this heart-pumping tale of a poor loser going bananas for a nightclub dancer. In contrast to their anthemic series of hit singles, this one is definitely weirder, with both comical and disturbing overtones, but this did not prevent the song from becoming yet another smash success for them, because, you know, who doesn't like a good song about trying to make love to a hot dancer right in the middle of her routine? Especially when that quivering banjo part sends you whirling like a spinning top — and this, by the way, is The Hollies' finest substitute for a «psychedelic» effect. Two months later, ʽOn A Carouselʼ would reconfirm that when these guys really wanted to blow your mind, they were much better at it with symbolic innocent metaphors than when they actually tried to show you how high they got on those mushrooms — ʽOn A Carouselʼ, with its revolving verses and loudly ascending vocal harmonies, has a far more «consciousness-liberating» effect than most of the superficially psychedelic tunes off their 1967 records.

None of this is supposed to mean that I rate For Certain Because... at the same «A-level» as the grand masterpieces of 1966 (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan, Beach Boys, etc.) — with The Hol­lies unable to make the transition into the big leagues (or, rather, the «deep leagues») in 1965, there was little chance they'd be able to make it in the even more demanding 1966. But as far as life on the «B-level» goes, nobody in 1966 made a better pure pop album than For Certain Because..., and considering that it makes good use of many of the stylistic and technological breakthroughs associated with 1966 for the sake of that pure pop, nobody could deny that as late as late 1966, The Hollies were still creatively growing. In fact, Graham Nash grew his first strands of facial hair before any of The Beatles dared to do it, so how could anybody give the record anything less than a thumbs up?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Ayreon: The Source

AYREON: THE SOURCE (2017)

CD I: Chronicle 1: The 'Frame: 1) The Day That The World Breaks Down; 2) Sea Of Machines; 3) Everybody Dies; Chronicle 2: The Aligning Of The Ten: 4) Star Of Sirrah; 5) All That Was; 6) Run! Apocalypse! Run!; 7) Condemned To Live.
CD II: Chronicle 3: The Transmigration: 1) Aquatic Race; 2) The Dream Dissolves; 3) Deathcry Of A Race; 4) Into The Ocean; Chronicle 4: The Rebirth: 5) Bay Of Dreams; 6) Planet Y Is Alive!; 7) The Source Will Flow; 8) Journey To Forever; 9) The Human Compulsion; 10) March Of The Machines.

Where do you go, exactly, after you have just dealt with The Theory Of Everything? Any other deity of rock would probably retire into singularity, the karmic cycle being completed once and for all. And yet again, Arjen «Beyond-The-Cosmic» Lucassen proves to us that his conscience penetrates far behind the limits of the unlimited — with his thoughts now bent upon the source that sets the «everything» in motion. Physicists and cosmologists all over the world, beware: you've got literally nothing on this guy, who, with just a humble budget of a few thousand dollars and a little help from his illustrious friends, is capable of penetrating the mysteries of the universe in a way that all your billion-dollar colliders and synchrotrons will never be able to replicate...

...but actually, no. Once you look into the concept, disappointment quickly sets in, because tech­nically, The Source functions as a constrained prequel to 01011001, telling the story of an early human (humanoid?) race living somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy and eventually forced out of their homelands by machines that they created themselves — a story told so many times that I guess it must be true, be it in the distant future or in the even more distant past. So, a few of these humans escape, develop some sort of superdrug that helps them live underwater (apparently, it is the drug that is called ʽThe Sourceʼ), and eventually settle on Planet Y in the system of Sirrah, where they begin working on even more and better machines, rebooting the cycle. Frankly, I sort of expected better from the guy than this regurgitation of a motive he'd already used at least once, or maybe more than once (honestly, I do not remember).

And if his basic fantasy channels have ceased to transmit fresh ideas, then what is to be said about his musical channels? This here is yet another sprawling «soft power metal» opera, spread across four parts on two CDs and featuring a cast of 12 vocalists for 12 different roles — this time, however, somewhat less eminent than last time; I recognize Dream Theater's James LaBrie, Blind Guardian's  Hansi Kürsch, and Symphony X's Russell Allen, but most of the rest are from even lesser entities (Nightwish, Between The Buried And Me, etc.); then again, why should the biggies want to star in some wretched prequel, of all things?.. And in terms of melodies, this is precisely what you expect of Ayreon these days — nothing more, nothing less; refer to the Theory Of Everything review, whose musical summary is perfectly applicable to this album as well.

Which is not to say that it sounds bad, mind you. By this time, we all know how to treat Ayreon space operas — they are the musical equivalent of your average Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, with the word average heavily stressed: good enough for a relaxed evening of popcorn and Coke, and maybe one extra night of Walter Mitty-style dreaming if you, like, totally let yourself go. His big advantage is diversity: the music is still well correlated with the dynamic twists of the story, so you have your metallic sections with chuggin' riffage, your lyrical sections with strings and angelic harmonies, your desperate-suicidal sections with delirious guitar solos, your pastoral sections with Tull-style flutes, and your ambient-atmospheric sections with electronic loops and heavenly synth tapestries. If not for the fact that most of the guest vocalists take the «rock opera» moniker way too seriously and end up outscreaming each other, there would be very few irrita­ting factors about The Source. But this is power metal, apparently, and so everything has to be done with power, or else the loyal fans will think they're all faking it, you know.

Was there anything special, this time, that somehow managed to seduce my attention? Over ninety minutes of music? Absolutely and totally nothing. At best, it was "this sounds totally like Eighties' metal-era Jethro Tull" (ʽDeathcry Of A Raceʼ), or "this sounds totally like the Alan Parsons Project" (ʽThe Source Will Flowʼ — needless pun on Frank Herbert here?), or "this is like a 100% Iron Maiden rip-off, man!" (ʽRun! Apocalypse! Run!ʼ, for some strange reason not featuring Bruce Dickinson, but featuring three or four guys who all want to sound like him). And no, it's not like all the music here is completely stolen — it's that the tunes to which you might really want to pay some attention are precisely the ones that sound like classic acts. The ones that just sound like Ayreon pass by without a twitch.

As for the storyline, I'd advise not to look too deeply into it. Typical lyric is: "Planet Y is alive, our race will survive! Forever we're free and forever we'll be and forever we will dream!" (For some reason, as I mentally translate this into High German and try to picture this in a Wagner libretto, it no longer sounds that bad — perhaps it is the operatic-pop singing style, after all, that completes the Heavy Blush effect). Just drift on the fringes and you'll be okay to survive the ride, with a large size bucket of heavily buttered popcorn and, preferably, the speakers blasting this shit at top volume. Also, Floor Jansen (Nightwish) as The Biologist is hot. I wish they'd give her a couple arias or something (actually, this is one more flaw: every track here is delivered by mul­tiple vocalists in short bits, never giving us the chance to establish much of a bond with any single character — certainly not something you could ever accuse Wagner of).

I don't know why I am not giving this a thumbs down. I guess there is still something vaguely amusing about all these Ayreon albums and how he not only seems to take it all quite seriously himself, but convinces all his endless guest stars to take it seriously as well. On the other hand, The Source, like everything that precedes it, completely lacks the preachy aspects of the worst prog rock — it's just a sci-fi roller coaster, with an amazing shitload of work going into it, too, so I can understand all the rave reviews from power metal and neo-prog lovers. I certainly won't be the one to stop the source from flowing, much as I'd wish that, every once in a while, it would flow through slightly less predictable ground.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Hymns For The Exiled

ANAÏS MITCHELL: HYMNS FOR THE EXILED (2004)

1) Before The Eyes Of Storytelling Girls; 2) 1984; 3) Cosmic American; 4) The Belly And The Beast; 5) Orion; 6) Mockingbird; 7) I Wear Your Dress; 8) Quecreek Flood; 9) A Hymn For The Exiled; 10) Two Kids; 11) One Good Thing.

By the very first line of this album ("I could tell you stories like the government tells lies" — kind of an OUCH! here, right?), you can tell that things are going to get even more serious than they were on the day that Rome fell. Although, form-wise, not a lot has happened, and what we hear is still mostly just the voice and the acoustic guitar, Mitchell has begun to move closer to a true «song» format instead of that of a musically accompanied poetic rant; and her lyrical themes have now expanded far beyond the «brainy young girl in a man's, man's, man's world» subject, even if that subject itself can never lose its relevancy. In terms of arrangements, she occasionally throws on an extra violin or viola line (courtesy of Caleb Elder), or adds a second guitar or bass (courtesy of her producer Michael Chorney), but there is still a distinct «alone in the bedroom» feel to most of the songs, although only one of them, the album closing pessimistic lament ʽOne Good Thingʼ, has been truly produced lo-fi bedroom style, as one final homage to her indie brothers and sisters, or, perhaps, to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

The album was released on the small American label of Waterbug Records which, according to the blurb on its website, positions itself as "an innovative, ear-to-the-ground artists' cooperative label specializing in great songwriters and traditional folk musicians who do original research"; except for Mitchell, I confess to never having heard of even one other artist from that label, but then, they couldn't very well advertise themselves as a label "specializing in mediocre song­writers and traditional folk musicians who pretend to do original research", right? Anyway, I would not truly call Mitchell a "great songwriter" (and she is most definitely not a traditional folk musician, either), based exclusively on Hymns For The Exiled. But at least by that time she was seriously trying to become a good songwriter, and she almost succeeded at that.

Almost, because only a superhero can write acoustic folk-based songs in the 21st century that would not sound, at best, like pleasant variations on well-trodden paths. Even if I cannot name them precisely, I am pretty sure that I have heard all of her chord sequences before — from Joni Mitchell to Clannad to, oh, I dunno, Loreena McKennitt, it's all been done, there's absolutely nothing to discuss. And although she was influenced enough by Leonard Cohen to namedrop him expressly on the previous record, she cannot, or does not wish to follow Cohen's sly routine of dropping a melodic earworm in each of his choruses, so that the lyrical wisdom of his verses gets dragged into your head on the alluring wings of the refrain. Still worse, she does not quite have the voice to impart that wisdom — the Joanna Newsom-lite pitch is good enough to show her as an actual human (rather than Newsom's pixie-brat act), but not good enough to woo me into awed submission, no matter how sharp the words are.

And the words are getting sharper as the lady gets political: ʽ1984ʼ is self-evident, and a good chunk of the other songs mentions the Iraq War directly or hints at it without much concealment (for instance, there is a bit of Arabic poetry, with fairly bad pronunciation but plenty of exube­rance, recited in the middle of ʽTwo Kidsʼ). But, truth be told, this is far from the worst batch of anti-war poetry ever written — ʽBefore The Eyes Of Storytelling Girlsʼ, drawing on Mitchell's own experience of living in the Middle East, is a skilled indictment of ignorance and deception that goes beyond the usual clichés, and I only wish the song made more of an impression on me through means other than just words. "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1984" is a good find, too. Oh, and the Iraq War is not the only thing on her mind — we also care about the ecology and the workers' rights (ʽQuecreek Floodʼ, about a mining incident in 2002), about our own artistic freedom (ʽMockingbirdʼ), and about nameless dead drummers (ʽOrionʼ — I do not know about any actual drummers from Austin found dead in their apartments, and neither do you, probably, but here's to all the dead drummers out there; also, since she does namedrop both Gram Parsons and Buddy Holly, this is a sort of an "only the good die young" statement here, really).

It's all nice, and moderately touching, but I will not join in the choir of excited reviews: this is an intelligent artistic statement, but not a magical one. It is a good thing that Anaïs kept on develo­ping, because settling into this formula — a perfectly easy thing to do, especially when you get lightly patted on the shoulder by critics — would simply result in a series of progressively more bland neo-folk records with Important Progressive Messages. It gets better, though.